European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill - Second Reading (2nd Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:33 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Fairfax of Cameron Lord Fairfax of Cameron Conservative 6:33 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, speaking at number 145 in this debate, it was inevitable, and I expected, that some previous speakers would have eaten my lunch. But I did not know that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, would have eaten my lunch, plate, knife and fork and even the table—and more amusingly, perhaps, than I can. As Russia has been mentioned at least once, I must first declare an interest, which is in the register, as an executive for a Russian shipping company.

The Bill, carried overwhelmingly and unamended in the House of Commons, simply gives effect, as the Government have said, to the referendum result. What did the referendum show? It was something very simple: a wish by the majority that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK. This was totally understood by some young Ukrainian friends of mine with whom I was discussing this subject several months ago. Having been brought up in the Soviet Union, they understood the result of our referendum very clearly. As a proud descendant of Sir Thomas Fairfax—some noble Lords may be aware that he was the commander of the parliamentary army in the English civil war—I understand about standing up for the rights of the people against an oppressive and undemocratic ruler.

As others have said, this is not about rerunning the referendum arguments, but I will make two short points. The first is about democracy and the role of this House; the second is about the negotiations, which some noble Lords have touched on. Here in this unelected place there may be a large EU-phile majority, but that view is out of line with the UK as a whole. I need not refer to the ICM poll as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, has already done so. I understand that this may be very painful to many here, including to some members of the EU nomenklatura, as their condescending disdain for the majority view often shows. This includes many Liberal Democrat Members of this House who, as my noble friend Lord Robathan showed, campaign for a referendum one minute and then reject it when the result is not to their taste. The country is watching and will judge them by their behaviour.

I will say a few words about the negotiations. As anyone with any experience of business or the world knows, negotiating with one hand tied behind your back—all the more so if your counterparty knows that—severely reduces your chances of achieving a successful outcome. This being so—and as my noble friend Lord Hill commented—amending the Bill is not conducive to the best outcome. It is against our national interest to do so. I have heard the contrary argument, made by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, 10 minutes ago, that having an element of uncertainty when negotiating enables you to say to your counterparty, “I cannot agree that because I must go back”. But in reality that would not be the case here, because the Government would know that, particularly in this place, their authority is questionable and may even, as we will discover soon, be subject to defeat. Therefore, that argument does not hold weight.

In closing, I applaud the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, the Leader of the Opposition, for some extremely realistic and constructive remarks in her speech yesterday—if I understood them correctly. As many speakers have said, everyone is entitled to express their views.